Business

A city of ox carts and Office Depot

Californian Steve Venghaus was a frequent visitor to Costa Rica during his career with a freight forwarding company.

He fell in love with its wild beaches and rain forests. But when he decided to retire to this Central American country, he purchased a condo in an urban stretch of this suburb just a few miles outside of the capital, San Jose.

"Everything I need is here," the 63-year-old said of the shopping, medical care and services. "And you just can't beat the weather."

Venghaus is one of thousands of Americans who have settled in Escazu, a suburb of 55,000 that has become so popular with expats it bears the nickname "Gringolandia." That pejorative doesn't bother its fans, who relish the area's U.S.-style conveniences, proximity to San Jose and temperate climate with average high temperatures in the 70s most of the year.

Situated in Costa Rica's Central Valley in the foothills just west of the capital, Escazu is both the name of a city and county that comprises a patchwork of districts. It's an amalgam of old and new, urban and rural, that offers residents a variety of ways to live.

San Rafael de Escazu and Guachipelin are upscale areas, home to high-rise condos, fancy housing developments and American chains such as McDonald's and Office Depot. A number of foreign embassies are located here, including the U.S. Embassy. So is CIMA Hospital, considered by many to be Costa Rica's finest medical facility.

Higher up is the original colonial town of San Miguel de Escazu, also known as Escazu Centro. The seat of the municipal government, it is a quiet community with a traditional central square, narrow streets and mom-and-pop shops with a distinctly "Tico," or Costa Rican, flavor.

Perched above them all is San Antonio de Escazu, a village whose annual festival, Ox Cart Driver's Day, features a parade of oxen pulling brightly painted carts. Expatriates are building homes there with spectacular views in a rural setting just a few miles from all the commerce down below.

The mix suits Americans such as Vicki Skinner, who finds Costa Rica's beach communities too hot and boring. A travel promoter and owner of a guest house in San Rafael de Escazu, she relies on the Internet to operate her business. She's active in charitable work, enjoys the area's cultural events and gets around in taxis and on public transport. Some of her clients are fellow Yanks searching for property in Costa Rica's remote corners, something the former Orange County resident can't fathom.

"Not everyone wants to live in the mountains eating gallo pinto," a ubiquitous Costa Rican dish of rice and beans, said Skinner, 50, who has lived in Costa Rica for two years. "Connections are important to me. I like to have neighbors . . . activities and restaurants."

Wherever they're headed in Costa Rica, foreigners are flocking to this nation of 4 million, whose national parks have made it an ecotourism center.

About 20,000 Americans, Canadians and Europeans have legal, long-term residency, according to government figures. Thousands more are believed to live here on tourist visas that can be renewed every 90 days by leaving the country for 72 hours. It's a practice that the government doesn't condone, but it cracks down on it only occasionally.

Peaceful and relatively prosperous compared with its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica is a stable democracy welcoming to foreigners. It offers high-quality medical care at a fraction of what U.S. hospitals charge. Real estate and property taxes are also a bargain.

Venghaus paid $88,000 for his two-bedroom condo in 2004. His property taxes are $300 a year. He pays $20 a month for blood-pressure medicine that cost him $280 monthly in the U.S.

Still, Costa Rica isn't the deal that it used to be. The government no longer offers lucrative tax breaks to retirees such as those being dangled by southern neighbor Panama. Costa Rica's sales tax is 13%. Gasoline costs about $4 a gallon. Import taxes on vehicles can run as high as 79%. Imported foods are expensive. Venghaus recently spotted a box of Frosted Flakes for $6.50.

"You've got to eat like the locals," he said. "If you eat like an American, you're in trouble."

Escazu is one of the priciest communities in Costa Rica, and it has other problems: Home break-ins are common. Infrastructure isn't keeping pace with development. Traffic is horrendous.

Some expats are looking to smaller communities around the Central Valley, which have pleasant weather but lower prices and less congestion.

Sally O'Boyle and her husband, Hal, tried that route when they moved to Costa Rica last year. But they found Heredia, a colonial town about seven miles north of San Jose, too provincial and remote. They relocated to Escazu this year to be closer to the Little Theatre Group, an English-language playhouse where she performs. Their two teenage boys like the occasional cheeseburger at TGI Fridays. Hal is trying to get a debt-restructuring business off the ground.

A former real estate agent in Key West, Fla., 52-year-old O'Boyle said hurricanes and the U.S. real estate meltdown persuaded the family to give Costa Rica a try. They're living off savings while they decide what to do next.

O'Boyle said the move had been the adventure of their lives -- frustrating, funny and endlessly fascinating. She is writing a book about the experience and blogs about it frequently on her site, called A Broad in Costa Rica.The family may eventually put down roots in Costa Rica, or some other place.

"Once you live outside the U.S., you realize that the world is accessible," she said. "You feel like you have a lot more options."

marla.dickerson@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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